Catholic, conservative, controversial – US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas seldom speaks but when he does, journalists’ notebooks flip open. Last week he gave a rare interview in the course of which he diagnosed the malaise afflicting America.
He asked: “What binds us? What do we all have in common any more? I think we have to think about that. When I was a kid, even as we had laws that held us apart, there were things that we held dear and that we all had in common. We always talk about E pluribus unum. What’s our unum now? We have the pluribus. What’s the unum?
Justice Thomas continued: “I think it’s a great country. Some people have decided that the Constitution isn’t worth defending, that history isn’t worth defending, that the culture and principles aren’t worth defending. Certainly, if you are in my position, they have to be worth defending. That’s what keeps you going. That’s what energises you. I don’t know what it is that we have [that] we can say instinctively we have, as a country, in common.”
This brief soliloquy was striking for its gloominess but also for its originator. Here was a Supreme Court Justice saying, in essence, that America had stopped working. Far from alarmism, Justice Thomas’s diagnosis of a culture dissipating before our eyes is a warning that may already be too late.
Donald Trump, divisive and demagogic, is nonetheless a product of the great unravelling rather than its source. He recognised before his opponents an emerging social eschatology among blue-collar Americans, the unshakable belief that the values and customs that had made America great were coming to an end. Trump offered redemption – to make America great again.
American déclinisme is an enduring superstition and reactionaries of Left and Right, from Fr Coughlin to Pat Buchanan, have exploited it well. The present moment differs in that there is substantial evidence of breakdown. Institutions, behaviours and living patterns that once conditioned unity have lost their grip. Income inequality is an unavoidable factor. Over the last four decades the post-tax average income of the middle 60 per cent has risen 42 per cent while the take-home pay of the top one per cent has shot up 314 per cent.
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